Romans 5–8 and the Family of Grace
Romans 5–8 is often held to be a digression in the argument about the status of Israel carried on in Romans 1–4 and 9–11. Another line of interpretation and theology regards these chapters as the real center of Romans and all the rest as ancillary material. Recently N. T. Wright has argued that these chapters carry on in a direct way the argument of 1–4 and lead directly in turn into 9–11 (1992a, 193–230). “It is the continuation of the same argument, the necessary bridge between the discussion of the family of Abraham defined by faith in Jesus Christ (3.21–4.25) and the family of Abraham defined by grace not race (9–11)” (194). In general, I agree with both this point and some aspects of the particular interpretation that Wright gives as well. He writes:
The position Paul is arguing, just as in Galatians 3, is that the Torah has not alleviated, but rather has exacerbated, the plight of Adamic humanity. This can only mean that the recipients of the Torah, i.e. Israel, have found themselves to be under its judgment because of their participation in Adamic humanity. Since therefore Christians have left the realm of the παλαιὸς ἄνθρωπος in baptism, they have also left the realm of Torah, coming out from the place where it could exert a hold over them. (195)
I absolutely concur in this interpretation, which accounts for much of the language of these chapters. But I dissent from, or rather offer an alternative to, Wright's interpretation of what this means in terms of Paul's religious world view. Wright argues that the essential point of Romans 7 is that the Torah has had the function of concentrating sin in Israel, so that the Christ, Redeemer of Israel, could redeem the whole world as well. What I will propose in this chapter is that the Torah has exacerbated the plight of Adamic humanity essentially because of one provision it contains, and not because of its character as law as such. This Law, which Paul refers to in verse 23 as “an Other Law” (ἕτερος νόμος), is the command to procreate, and the desire that it produces in the members. Dealing with this command is the necessary bridge that Paul must build between the family of Israel defined by race and that defined by grace, since for old Israel procreation as the means of continuation of God's People was the central and highest of goods and of religious values, but at the same time, for Israel by the first century sexuality had become thoroughly anxiety-ridden and guilty as well (Biale 1992, 39–40). Many Jews of the first century had a sense that they were commanded by God to do that which God himself considered sinful.
Sexuality and Sin in First-Century Judaism
The Palestinian Judaism of Paul's time was strongly dualist in mood and at best powerfully ambivalent about sexuality. In The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, a Hellenistic Jewish text from Palestine dated to sometime approximately in the late second century B.C., each human being is inhabited by a “good spirit” and an “evil spirit.” The evil spirit is explicitly defined as sexuality and opposed by a good spirit, which is anti-sexual: “And the spirits of error have no power over him [the genuine man], since he does not include feminine beauty in the scope of his vision ” (Kee 1983, 803). “For the person with a mind that is pure with love does not look on a woman for the purpose of having sexual relations” (Kee 1983, 827). Other passages in this same text also indicate an extremely anxious affect around sexuality. The text speaks of seven “good spirits” inhabiting human beings. Of these,
The distinction between the spirit of taste for food and the spirit of procreation is striking. Although both are listed among the good spirits, the former contributes strength to the body. We would expect, therefore, that the clause on “the spirit of procreation and intercourse” would similarly continue; “by it comes the continuation of the race, because in intercourse the race is maintained.” But instead we read, “with which come sins through fondness for pleasure.” While the spirit of taste is commingled with a spirit of insatiability, the spirit of intercourse induces to sin, even before being commingled with the spirit of promiscuity. Philo, famously, expresses himself similarly. There may be no question, then, that Hellenistic Judaism, including in Palestine, had developed extremely pessimistic notions of sexuality. The clearest expression of this Palestinian Jewish negative affect around sexuality is, of course, the term ערה רצי itself, the evil inclination as a near synonym for sexual desire.
the sixth is the spirit of taste for consuming food and drink; by it comes strength, because in food is the substance of strength. The seventh is the spirit of procreation and intercourse, with which come sins through fondness for pleasure. For this reason, it was the last in the creation and the first in youth, because it is filled with ignorance; it leads the young person like a blind man into a ditch and like an animal over a cliff. With these are commingled the spirits of error. First the spirit of promiscuity resides in the nature and the senses. A second spirit of insatiability, in the stomach. (782–85)
In a thinking person, such judgments would inevitably have been in powerful conflict, indeed creating a sort of double bind, with the commandment to procreate. The fact that sexuality, the ערה רצי, is the agent of the first positive commandment in the Torah is an irony that neither Paul nor the Rabbis could escape. The very efforts which the Rabbis were to make a century or two later to overcome the negative encoding of sexuality and desire as ipso facto evil provide eloquent testimony to the strength and problematicity of this ideology of sex for a community insisting on the unqualified goodness of procreation, owing to the doctrine of the holiness of its physical existence (Boyarin 1993, 61–64). The Rabbis for their part heavily ironized the notion of the Evil Instinct through paradoxical formulations, such as calling the Evil Instinct “very good” (Boyarin 1993, 167–96). Paul, I suggest, found a different way out. Through readings of three Pauline texts—Romans 5–8, 1 Corinthians 6, and Galatians 5–6—I hope to make a case that for Paul encratism was the ideal, procreation of no value whatsoever, and marriage indeed merely a defense against desire for the weak. The politics of this move, of course, are intimately bound up in the transcession of Israel according to the flesh by its spiritual signified.